The Screenwriter's Column

Five Tips for New Screenwriters

By Linda Cowgill

1. Buy Final Draft or another industry standard screenwriting program, and learn how to use it.

  • To be taken seriously, you have to write seriously. That means your script must look like a pro's. A script typed in any font other than Courier 12, Courier New 12 or Courier Final Draft 12, automatically tells the reader you're an amateur. This gives the reader carte blanche to knock your script, whether he's read your work carefully or not.

  • But don't just buy the program: Learn how to use it. Just because you can bounce with a keystroke from scene heading to action and back again doesn't mean you understand what you're doing. 

  • The program doesn't format your screenplay for you; it makes it easier for you to do it. To understand screenplay formatting, you need to:

2. Read lots of scripts.

  • The best way to learn about screenwriting is to read the scripts of successful movies and then watch the films made from those screenplays. This will not only help you with formatting and understanding the look of a motion picture script, but also give you insight into film story telling.

  • But, and this is a big but, don't spend a lot of time with Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers' scripts. This isn't because these aren't good screenplays; these guys win Oscars! It's that they are too idiosyncratic. What successful writer/directors like the Coens and Tarantino can get away with, you can't. You'll be held to a different standard because no one knows who you are. 

  • Take a look at screenplays like Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, American Beauty. If you like action movies, look at The Dark Knight or Die Hard. From these you'll learn not only how to format your script, but also the archetypal structure of story.

3. Give your protagonist a problem and make him act!

  • I'm not talking your every day problem. I'm talking BIG PROBLEM! It has to be life or death for the character, if not literally, then figuratively. I'm talking really important.

  • This problem isn't just to create dramatic tension to hold your audience. The problem your protagonist struggles with will not only define the action of your story for your audience, it will define her and tell us whether we should care about her or not.

  • A dramatic problem leads the protagonist to face hard choices and decisions about her goals. These allow you to dramatize through action who your protagonist is and what she stands for.

4. Know what you're selling.

  • This is just another way of saying, what is your story about and why will anyone care? If you can't answer these two questions simply and clearly, it may mean you need to go back to the drawing board. 

  • One way to figure out what you're selling is to be clear about your genre. If it's a love story, you're selling romance; if it's a comedy, laughs; a thriller - thrills. You can't call your story a thriller if the only thrilling action comes at the end.

5. A famous screenwriter once said, "Mastering screenwriting is like mastering the ancient art of Ty-Ping."

  • That means write the script. Don't talk about what you're going to write. Write and type (in the proper format!).

  • If it's hard going, create a ritual to get you to the keyboard. Understand your process and work with it. Then give yourself deadlines. Scripts don't write themselves. Writers write them.